WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler approved an operation to capture or kill murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to U.S. intelligence released on Friday as the United States sanctioned some of those involved but spared the crown prince himself in an effort to preserve relations with the kingdom.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
The Saudi government, which has denied any involvement by the crown prince, issued a statement rejecting the U.S. report’s findings and repeating its previous statements that Khashoggi’s killing was a heinous crime by a rogue group.
U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to be trying to make clear that killings of political opponents were not acceptable to the United States while preserving ties to the crown prince, who may rule one of the world’s top oil exporters for decades and be an important ally against common foe Iran.
Among the punitive steps the United States took on Friday, it imposed a visa ban on some Saudis believed involved in the Khashoggi killing and placed sanctions on others, including a former deputy intelligence chief, that would freeze their U.S. assets and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.
U.S. officials also said they were considering cancelling arms sales to Saudi Arabia that pose human rights concerns and limiting future sales to “defensive” weapons, as it reassesses it relationship with the kingdom and its role in the Yemen war.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in the report.
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The intelligence agency based its assessment on the crown prince’s control of decision-making, the direct involvement of one of his key advisers and his own protective detail, and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” it added.
“Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without (his) authorization,” the report said.
In declassifying the report, Biden reversed his predecessor Donald Trump’s refusal to release it in defiance of a 2019 law, reflecting a new U.S. willingness to challenge the kingdom on issues from human rights to Yemen.
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However, Biden is treading a fine line to preserve ties with the kingdom as he seeks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with its regional rival Iran and to address other challenges including fighting Islamist extremism and advancing Arab-Israeli ties.
In announcing the decision to bar entry by 76 Saudis under a new policy called the “Khashoggi Ban,” the State Department said it would not tolerate those who threaten or assault activists, dissidents and journalists on behalf of foreign governments.
The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Ahmed Hassan Mohammed al-Asiri, Saudi Arabia’s former Deputy Head of General Intelligence Presidency, and Saudi Arabia’s Rapid Intervention Force (RIF) in connection with Khashoggi’s murder.
The Treasury accused Asiri of being the ringleader of the Khashoggi operation and said several members of the hit squad sent to intercept the journalist were part of the RIF, a subset of the Saudi Royal Guard which answers only to the crown prince.
The U.S. intelligence report judged that members of the force would not have participated in the operation without approval from the crown prince.
Previewing the announcements, U.S. officials had said the sanctions and visa bans would not target the crown prince.
“The aim is a recalibration (in ties) – not a rupture,” a senior Biden administration official said on condition of anonymity, saying approach aims to create a new starting point for ties with the kingdom without breaking a core relationship.
Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, said that despite the damning report, the Biden administration will have to deal deftly with the crown prince because “there is no way around him” as the kingdom’s “chief executive officer.”
“In a political context, obviously, Mohammed bin Salman is thoroughly vilified and quite radioactive in American politics,” he said. “But you have to ask yourself what the consequences of failing to deal with the effective manager of the kingdom are.”
Since assuming his post in 2017, the crown prince – known by some in the West as MbS – “has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations,” the report said, making it “highly unlikely” that the operation against Khashoggi would have taken place without his authorization.
Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in Virginia who wrote opinion pieces for the Washington Post critical of the policies of the crown prince – known to some in the West as MbS.
He was lured on Oct. 2, 2018, to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with a promise of a document that he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee. Operatives linked to MbS killed him there and dismembered his body. His remains have not been found.
Riyadh initially issued conflicting stories about his disappearance, but eventually admitted that Khashoggi was killed in what it called a “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong.
Twenty-one men were arrested in the killing and five senior officials, including Asiri and senior MbS aide Saud al-Qahtani, were fired.
The report noted some of those involved were from the Saudi Center for Studies and Media Affairs, which was then led by Qahtani, “who claimed publicly in mid-2018 that he did not make decisions without the Crown Prince’s approval.”
In January 2019, 11 people were put on trial behind closed doors. Five were given death sentences, which were commuted to 20 years in prison after they were forgiven by Khashoggi’s family, while three others were given jail terms.
Asiri was acquitted “due to insufficient evidence,” the prosecution said, while Qahtani was investigated but not charged.
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